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Understanding And Applying The Intelligence Of Play

By Michael Mendizza

Nurture the soil, and the seed grows fully with little attention. Neglect the soil, and the seed’s development is compromised at every step.

Children are seeds. We are the soil, but we are often blind to our own lack of mentored development. In our semi-blind state we do unto others what was done, or more often, not done to us—repeating the cycle, generation after generation.

We are at a tipping point—personally, culturally and globally. We cannot rely on the past to respond appropriately to the present, and by that act expect to create a different future.

The question is: Where do we invest our energy and attention? How do we break the cycle in which we have been trapped for centuries? Do we focus on the seed or enrich the soil? The answer is, I believe, obvious. We invest in adult development and invite children to stand on our expanding shoulders, as nature intended.

But where do we begin? We have been traveling down the same old path for so long. How do we blaze a new trail through uncharted lands in our fast-changing world?

First we, the people who care for young children, must realize that our role has expanded. Child development is dependent upon adult development, and optimal social development requires that we must grow and change as much and as swiftly as the children we care for. No fixed curriculum can do this. No standardized test or government certificate is up to the challenge.

To meet this challenge—and there is none greater—you, I and every parent must rediscover the genius of our own childhoods— a genius drilled out of most of us years ago. In a phrase, we must rediscover the Intelligence of Play.

Understanding and applying the Intelligence of Play begins by opening our hearts and minds to new perceptions and possibilities. We think smart people know a lot of stuff. Computers contain lots of data and they are fast; however, computer-like behavior is not intelligent. It is reflexive, mechanical. To our personal and global distress, much of what we call education promotes computer-like behavior rather than developing true adaptive intelligence.

True genius is taking the stuff we already know and discovering what else we might do with it. Lego blocks can be combined in novel ways and become just about anything. The acts of imagining, wondering, trying, testing, crashing, persisting, dreaming, laughing, sharing, telling stories and connecting with others— these are the hallmarks of true genius, rather than mechanically regurgitating piles of content we already know.

Realizing Our Potential

Play is the only state where the full spectrum of our vast human potential is present and available. True genius is remembering just how to imagine. True genius is remaining present, open, flexible, attentive, curious, excited and passionate. True genius is not mistaking mechanical stuff—reflexive conditioning—for heartfelt intelligence with its care, affection and appropriateness.

Is this the state we embody as we meet each day’s challenges? Is this what we are modeling for the next critical generation, our innate genius lost long ago?

Many mistake the inner state of Play with the outer activity— the toy. Play is a state, not an activity. Intelligence is a state, not data storage. The next frontier in education, I suggest, is not about content. Instead it represents a shift of focus, priorities and values away from content and toward relationships, processes and capacity. The inner state of Play is the optimal way for this continual inner (and therefore outer) development to unfold.

After having interviewed hundreds of gifted individuals, many of whom are top performance specialists in high-pressure fields, I have come to realize that homework and tests matter very little. What matters most is the state in which we meet challenges. Play is the optimal state for learning and performance at any age, as we meet any challenge.

Authentic Play is transcendent—that is, it reaches beyond limitation and constraint. To become a 4-year-old, one must overcome the limitations and constraints of being 3. Life is a transcendent movement, and Play is unfolding human development in action.

The greater the challenge, the more we need to play. Develop the Intelligence of Play throughout your life, and you will naturally optimize the full spectrum of capacity to meet every future challenge in the best possible way.

If we create a heart and mind based on fixed content and beliefs, our future will narrow dramatically. But if we create a heart and mind that can imagine and dream, and that is willing to ask questions and act in new yet appropriate ways, there is no challenge that we cannot overcome.

The best possible school, at any age, will seek to develop the Intelligence of Play, and the inner skills and capacities needed to meet any challenge, fully and completely. Every action produces feedback used to enhance development. Spilling the milk or paint isn’t “wrong.” Going “too far” or discovering “too much” provides feedback used to refine attention and motor skills.

Capacity vs. Content

Developmentally we are always paying forward, always building capacity to meet the next moment more fully. In the state of Play, with its enhanced energy and attention, failure isn’t possible. This is very different from cultural competition. Play is the act of learning, and learning is expanding capacity, not content.

Understanding the difference between content and capacity instantly transforms any classroom into a play-based learning environment. Every stroke of the paint brush produces an effect. Every effect is feedback that enhances the next stroke. In such an environment, learning and expanding capacity take place all the time. Tests lose their high-stakes sting. In these environments, every action is an exploration, an inquiry that produces feedback, which in turn enhances performance. Growth never ends, and capacity continues to expand.

The best thing about the Intelligence of Play, however, is joy. Retain the Intelligence of Play throughout your life and you will retain the energy, attention, passion and affection you had that spring morning catching pollywogs in the stream behind the old wooden fence. You retain and enhance being present, open and full of wonder as the cat tugs at your shoe strings. Retain the Intelligence of Play and you begin each day full of the childlike genius nature intended.

The alternative is that we can think we know everything and grow increasingly grumpy as life’s ever-changing richness and diversity fail to meet our fixed ideas and beliefs.

Most simply and profoundly, understanding and applying the Intelligence of Play means never getting stuck in yourself!